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Economist suggests rethink, managing overtourism woes

Brewbaker: It’s better than trying to actively stem tide of visitors

A thrill-seeker jumps off Kaanapali’s Pu‘u Keka‘a, or Black Rock, on Wednesday afternoon. Economist Paul Brewbaker suggested government start charging visitors access to currently free public parks and sites. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

MAALAEA — Economist Paul Brewbaker said Wednesday that since “you can’t stop people from coming here” how about better managing and rethinking tourism to deal with concerns about overtourism.

“Of course people want to come here, it’s freaking Maui,” said Brewbaker, principal of TZ Economics. “Managing tourism’s outcomes requires a mix of reform of tourism governance institutions.”

The Sphere at the Maui Ocean Center was packed Wednesday night with about a hundred people listening to Brewbaker’s presentation titled, “Overtourism meets sea rise.” It mostly focused on the effects of continuing record visitor rates on Maui and the state.

Congestion, natural resource depletion, environmental degradation and cultural dilution are the main “unintended costs of tourism,” he said. Those issues can be mitigated by “using explicit pricing mechanisms by making markets,” and dealing with each individual problem directly.

There were almost 3 million visitors to the island last year, a 6.2 percent increase from the year before and the fourth consecutive year of record-breaking visitor statistics, according to the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, which organized the event. Another record-breaking year appears in the making this year, with visitor arrival rates higher than 2018 so far.

Economist Paul Brewbaker of TZ Economics spoke about managing and rethinking tourism Wednesday night before a packed house at the Maui Ocean Center’s Sphere. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

One reason for the surge in visitor arrivals was the proliferation of nonstop air flights in 2014, Brewbaker said. He noted that there has been a drastic net increase in visitor arrivals in the last five years, but arrivals have been on an upward trend since the end of the Great Recession, in 2009.

Visitor arrivals also have spiked since Southwest Airlines entered the Hawaii market in March.

“People are free to move around,” he said. “But at some point, social costs rise at an increasing rate faster than social benefits.”

Despite the rise in visitor arrivals, the economy is not seeing corresponding benefits because tourists “learn how not to spend money” after visiting Maui a couple times, Brewbaker said.

For example, more people are taking advantage of generally lower-cost vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfasts rather than paying for hotels. Hotel guests generally spend more on average, he said.

Visitors enjoy a hot day on Kaanapali Beach fronting the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa on Wednesday afternoon. Economist Paul Brewbaker told a crowd at the Maui Ocean Center on Wednesday that it is more advisable to manage and rethink tourism rather than trying to stem the tide of visitor arrivals. The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo

Use of Google, eBay and smartphone apps are becoming more popular and giving visitors an opportunity to plan a convenient and less expensive trip. They can see locations and what they have to offer, such as parks, beaches and other recreational activities, as well as ratings and popular times.

“Lifestyle preferences have changed,” Brewbaker said. “Computers and apps have reduced the barrier to entry . . . Nobody knew where the trails were. Now they have an app.

“You got to figure out a way to have it pay for its own stewardship, figure out a way to get private providers to get into the game and reduce the loading on public access endowment.”

This could include charging to enter public recreational areas to help alleviate the overuse and overcrowding, which in turn will profit the economy, he said.

A 2017 survey of residents by the Hawaii Tourism Authority showed the top three perceptions of tourism were that it creates more traffic, the economy has become too dependent on it, and it raises the cost of living.

However, reversing the effects of tourism or just having “less tourism” will not solve the overarching issues behind the perceptions, Brewbaker said. As the visitor population decreases, so does economic opportunity.

“Failure to use pricing, or more specifically, a universal price of zero, facilitates overuse, congestion and environmental degradation,” he said. “It’s about how you deal with the problem.

“I’m just saying, be careful what you wish for because going the other direction isn’t that helpful.”

Rather than working to reduce tourism, Brewbaker suggested e-toll scanners on busy highways, like Honoapiilani Highway, to mitigate traffic and to encourage alternative forms of transportation.

“There are more registered vehicles on Maui than there are humans. That’s part of a statewide trend,” he said.

Learning to manage tourism will alleviate the stress on Maui’s coastal environment, he said. This could include relocating beachfront communities and businesses away from the shore, but this will come at a cost. The price tag has been estimated at a couple hundred billion dollars with a 30-year strategic plan.

“It’s time to stop letting people build houses on the shoreline,” he said in addressing sea-level rise and dying reefs. “We have to make a pathway for people to redeploy . . . move the coastline road mauka and build sewer systems.”

Brewbaker said that places like Kihei, Olowalu and Lahaina already are experiencing the threat of sea-level rise, and building seawalls is not the answer.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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